Archive (Rentschler MSS)

Falklands: Jim Rentschler diary (Haig en route to Buenos Aires again) [White House-State Department in-fighting; Haig updates Reagan by telegram]

Document type: Declassified documents
Source: Thatcher Archive (copy of the text per the late Ambassador Rentschler)
Editorial comments:

Jim Rentschler was the NSC official responsible for European matters, who handled the Falklands for the White House throughout the crisis. He gave a photocopy of the original diary to the Margaret Thatcher Foundation for publication in 2003. The full Falklands diary can be read here as single text.

Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 2,130 words
Themes: Foreign policy (USA), Defence (Falklands)

Thursday 15 April 1982

Back on board Tailgate #86972, destination Buenos Aires. Round Two in the London-B.A. shuttle. Dick Walters is moving up the stairwell beside me at 8 this morning, establishing a poignant interconnection: he sez that he first rode this plane in 1960 when Eisenhower took it to his State Visit in Brazil. … Who the hell knows - I like Dick Walters a lot, but prolonged exposure to him on this exercise has shown what a prodigious bullshitter he can be, citing instant "facts" and figures with astonishingly detailed and therefore suspect precision (Mrs. T: "And you say, General, that their ships are berthed at Puerto Belgrano; how far is that from the Falklands?" Dick W.: "572 nautical miles, Prime Minister"). The prodigality of his outpourings continues through our refuelling stop at Caracas and the long stretch above the Amazon jungle, a flight path which provides a magnificent view of the Amazon itself, the awesomeness of its dimensions fully discernible at 33,000 feet (Dick W.: "Just look at it down there, over 4000 miles long, and 23 miles in width at the point where you see it now. Rises in the Andes at Latacunga - that's Peru, near where Vicente de Orellana started the first known descent to the seam via the Napo River in 1541. He named it, too - battling the Tapuyan savages he believed that the tribal women fought with the men - it carries more than half the world's rainfall …"). Jeesus - the force of the Amazon's flow and the volume of its contents are exceeded only by the oral deliveries of Dick himself!

Shall we check out some of my other fellow delegates? Start with Big Tom Enders, seated opposite me at the four-seat VIP table in the forward compartment. His 6-foot, 8-inch frame overflows the thickly cushioned configuration of the furniture while the long long fingers of one blond hand pick identically at the bowl of shelled nuts in front of us. The once-yellow hair, now turned to ashy-gray, is getting very thin on top, but the ends of it continue to curl in tufted profusion over the back of his neck. He sits there reading D.M. Thomas' The White Hotel, his peanut free hand holding the book in myopic rigidity close to his bare eyes ("Mediocre" is his crisp summation of the book's quality when I question him about it - having thoroughly enjoyed it myself - and he soon discards in favor of Deutsche Erzähler by Zweiter Band and a book on mountaineering published by a private club in Seattle and entitled The Freedom Of The Hills). Being Tom! - an impressive, imposing, arrogantly imperial personality before whom even the forceful likes of Al Haig seem diminished. Haig likes Tom, though, respects him, even to a certain extent appears cowed by him, despite a number of wrong calls Tom's ARA staffers claim he made early on in the crisis. I am disposed in his favor, having enjoyed the hospitality of both him and his spouse Gaitana during their previous incarnations in Ottawa and Brussels, but Tom is not one to suffer fools (or anybody else) very gladly. …

… Round One on the shuttle brought us some critical time - a one-day pause for both sides to reconsider fixed positions - and when we emplaned this morning a cautious note of optimism accompanied us. Here in mid-flight, however, that fragile hope has again turned to near-despair. A FLASH signal in from Defense Minister John Nott tells us that British intelligence has detected two Argentine subs inside the 200-mile exclusion zone, setting the stage for a momentary act of war and the collapse of Haig's shuttle. The implication of this message seemed clear enough - warn off the Argentines fast - but no sooner do we send FLASH instructions to B.A. than another British signal arrives, this one from the FCO requesting that we do not inform the Argentines. Figure it out! It is too late in any event to [fo.165 begins] recall our B.A. message, and with this in the background, plus press reports out of both capitals that Haig no longer has credibility as a go-between (Mike Getler's piece in yesterday's Washington Post, together with some ABC Nightline disclosures the evening before, did seriously compromise our effectiveness by laying out the alleged extent to which we are giving the Brits sensitive logistical, intelligence, and communications support), the Secretary's comment seems right on target: "It's getting hairy, fellas - it's getting hairier and hairier!"

And how. If the Brits sink one of those Argentine subs - they're old, 1960 diesels, full of loud noise, easy for the modern hunter-killers to search and destroy - we may not even be able to land in B.A. We may not even want to. The Secretary is subdued, withdrawn, sitting at his table in the central compartment restlessly jiggling his knees, alone. The low-energy output of his personality - quite uncharacteristic - derives less from the danger of the present moment, I suspect, than from the escalating flap over which aircraft he used on Round One and why. Really bat-shit stuff, and an object lesson in how the media can have such a distorting impact on larger issues - how, in fact, the press eclipses the larger issues in favor of minutia that should remain completely irrelevant. I mean the New York Times coverage which first drew on this wunnerful "White House sources", the ones near Jim Baker's office [White House Chief of Staff] who claimed that Haig delayed his Round One departure to London for half a day because he wanted an airplane with windows. And the plane incident, of initially narrow scope, has now ballooned into a much larger story concerning the resurfaced volatility of Haig's relations with the White House, the huge personal stakes he has riding on a successful outcome to this crisis, etc. etc.

Well, as I said, the roller-coaster phenomenon is still in effect on this bleak and withdrawn moment over the Brazilian jungle, and if there were the least doubt about that, I invite you to glom [Rentschler slang for 'look over'] the IMMEDIATE [urgent telegram] which the Secretary has just released to the President:

"The situation has become distinctly more ominous. I base this assessment on several recent developments: a) today's Argentine press has an especially dark tone. Despite the fact that the British fleet is now entering the South Atlantic, Argentine commentary has become more inflexible and bellicose. This may be a response to British rhet and yesterday's tragic revelations about US intelligence and logistical support for the UK. More than anything, it betrays a self-hypnotizing war hysteria that may be taking over in Buenos Aires, with the prospect of military defeat, political isolation, and economic ruin eclipsed by patriotic fervor; b) I have also received the first detailed Argentine negotiating proposal. Although this gives us a clearer framework in which to engage the Argentines, the substance is little different than their basic demand all along: control of the Falklands, de facto if not de jure.

"An optimist might argue that these signs reflect posturing for what both sides know is the final round. This may be especially true of Buenos Aires with me en route there to extract concessions. A pessimist would take these developments at face value, based on the premise that rational statesmanship gives way to more powerful impulses - not easily controlled by the leaders themselves - as war grows more imminent. As I see it, the truth is problem somewhere in between. I should have a much clearer fix on the Argentine state of mind by late tomorrow. But we should begin to prepare ourselves for the worst. In this regard, I may need very soon to seek your decisions on two critical questions: a) whether and how far to push Mrs. Thatcher to come forth with a significant concession; b) whether and how to break off this mission if its futility becomes clear.

"Whether you should, or could, push Mrs. Thatcher to this bitter conclusion - that they cannot in any event resist the course of history and that they are now paying the price for previous UK vacillation on the sovereignty question - with all that it would mean for her, for our relationship, and our own principles, will require very careful thought. On the second question, we must think - and think quickly - about whether there is value in continuing this process and our role even though it will lead nowhere … "

[fo.166 begins] No sooner do we dispatch this gloomy assessment, than the mood abruptly changes once again. Why? Because we have just received word from the White House that Galtieri called the President minutes before, had a half-hour exchange with him, expressed concern about the British fleet, but spoke in friendly terms. A promising sign, on the strength of which our Coney Island car begins to climb a few notches up the curving track; and before the thing careens precipitously downward anew, I clear talking points for the Secretary's use with Galtieri along the following lines:

  • President Reagan asked me to see you to convey his views on this crisis.
  • We are now perilously close to war.
  • With each passing day, our ability - yours, mine, Prime Minister Thatcher's - to control events is diminished. At some point - any day now - passions and pride will take over completely; rational calculation and statesmanship will be impossible.
  • Argentina is ready for war. I have told Prime Minister Thatcher this with brutal frankness.
  • But Great Britain is also ready for war. Don't underestimate the Prime Minister's resolve or the readiness of the British to start and sustain hostilities.
  • They are not driven by the economic potential of the islands, but rather by honor - a far more powerful force. Rightly or wrongly, they believe the territory inhabited by their countrymen has been invaded. I don't expect you to agree; but I don't want you to miscalculate.
  • The British fleet has entered the South Atlantic. Prime Minister Thatcher will not and cannot stop it or slow it down.
  • The nearing of that fleet to Argentina, even though you are prepared to meet it, will change the situation fundamentally. The strategic balance in the area will dramatically alter.
  • What might have seemed feasible with British power 7000 miles away will look much different with British power off your shores.
  • I know you are sure of Argentine will and capabilities. But this does not alter the fact that the best time for you to achieve a favorable peaceful solution is now, before your advantage - and therefore your leverage - slips away.
  • The diplomatic process is extremely fragile, and will become more so. Each party will come under enormous pressure to lock itself into public positions that will destroy the climate for diplomacy. This is already beginning to happen.
  • I know what you want to accomplish. There are three ways of doing so. The first is by military means alone. The prospect of success is dubious, and in any case the political, economic, and strategic consequences will be catastrophic.
  • The second way is by obtaining now British agreement to unchallenged Argentine sovereignty. This is not achievable. British capitulation is out of the question, and I must tell you, my own country would not associate itself with an outcome whereby the use of force yielded such a reward.
  • Even the most committed advocates of Argentina's position know that you cannot emerge from this with immediate control of the islands. This will not be the standard of success.
  • A third way is to reach an agreement that will put you in a position to achieve your ultimate goal through a combination of subsequent, urgent negotiations and an expanded de facto Argentine role. The third course, in my view, is the only way to reach your objective. The only way to avoid war, the only way to achieve the success you must have.
  • I have brought here a coherent set of ideas which would: stop the fleet; keep the Argentine flag; expand your role on the islands; guarantee that negotiations would conclude by the end of the year; guide the entire process by the principles of decolonization and normalization; lift sanctions; and ensure our help throughout. [fo.167 begins]
  • More than this I cannot achieve. As time goes on and the British military position improves, even this will not be achievable. And of course if hostilities occur - which could be literally any moment, even as we are sitting here - all of this will instantly vanish.
  • If we don't move rapidly, instead of what I have outlined you will have war, isolation, and economic ruin. You will have no one to turn to but the Soviets. I know, from our last discussion, that you want at all costs to avoid being left with this as Argentina's only future.

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